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Water/Wastewater Engineers

History

Interest in water systems and the disposal of wastes dates back to early times. Some of the first known domestic drainage systems were built thousands of years ago by the Minoans on the island of Crete. Later, the Romans introduced engineering feats such as enclosed sewer lines that drained both rain runoff and water from the public baths. Urban sanitation methods, however, were limited. Garbage and human wastes were collected from streets and homes and dumped into open watercourses leading away from the cities.

These processes continued for centuries. The health hazards of contact with refuse were poorly understood, but as populations grew, disease outbreaks and noxious conditions in crowded areas made sanitation an important issue. Problems worsened with the Industrial Revolution, which led to both increased population concentrations and industrial wastes that required disposal.

Early efforts by sanitation engineers in the 19th century attempted to take advantage of natural processes. Moderate amounts of pollutants in flowing water go through a natural purification that gradually renders them less harmful. Operators of modern wastewater treatment plants monitor the process that does essentially the same thing that occurs naturally in rivers to purify water, only faster and more effectively. Today's plants are highly sophisticated, complex operations that may utilize biological processes, filtration, chemical treatments, and other methods of removing waste that otherwise may allow bacteria to colonize (live in) critical drinking supplies.

Water/wastewater engineers and other professionals in this industry must comply with stringent government standards for removing pollutants. Under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 and later reauthorizations, it is illegal to discharge any pollutant into the environment without a permit. Industries that send wastes to municipal treatment plants must meet minimum standards and pretreat the wastes so they do not damage the treatment facilities. Standards are also imposed on the treatment plants, controlling the quality of the water they discharge into rivers, streams, and the ocean.

Today, water/wastewater engineers focus on various areas of water and wastewater management and disposal. They help to make sure the population's water supply is safe to drink, they come up with engineering solutions to help prevent flooding in towns, and they also research and identify locations that are best for municipal water treatment facilities.

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